Jesus, Etc.

Within the first two minutes of Benedetta’s prologue—in which its namesake’s younger incarnation compels a bird to shit in the eye of a potential assailant—it’s clear that Verhoeven is in his comfort zone; if the movie doesn’t necessarily push beyond those confines, it confirms them as a uniquely spacious and fertile patch of cinematic terrain, where provocation and pleasure get intertwined on a molecular level and nearly every line cuts two ways, as a statement of principles and a sick joke.

On Benedetta

Still from Benedetta
Still from Benedetta

Paul Verhoeven. Benedetta. 2021.

“Wherever I am, there can be no shame,” says Jesus Christ early on in Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta. The Son of Man is speaking on behalf of his director. A one-time Pentecostal Christian who likened Robocop to a parable of Resurrection (with its hero walking on water en route to cutting his rival’s carotid artery) and served for decades as a non-tenured member of the Californian scholarly enclave known as the Jesus Seminar, Verhoeven knows from scripture. His movies to date have featured all the seven deadly sins, sometimes in ecstatic combination, and always without even a hint of contrition. No filmmaker is in lesser need of a fig leaf: manfully accepting a septet of Golden Raspberry awards (actually just one statue, handed over and returned seven times) for Showgirls, Verhoeven wryly compared himself to another polarizing figure known for turning the other cheek. Like few auteurs of his vintage (or any vintage), Verhoeven is an artist in touch with his basic instincts, whose cinema exists on an unrepentant continuum of love-it-or-hate-it, take-it-or-leave-it.

Freely but respectfully adapted from historian Judith C. Brown’s 1986 nonfiction historical study Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy—a title blunt as Snakes on a Plane, and no less commercially viable—and shot under secretive conditions for fear of reprisal by various fundamentalist Catholic associations, Benedetta does indeed feature a series of immodest acts performed consensually, enthusiastically, and with increasingly athletic vigor, by two residents in a cloistered Italian abbey. These are the veteran sister Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), sold into pious servitude in childhood by her protective and deep-pocketed father, and new initiate Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), introduced fleeing her own abusive pater (a shepherd who’s literally lost his flock). The latter is surely a wretched creature in need of protection, yet she’s only grudgingly granted sanctuary by the establishment’s reigning Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) after Signore Carlini—on a visit to see his now fully grown daughter—agrees to foot the bill. The quality of mercy is not strained, but it isn’t cheap, either.

Benedetta and Bartolomea’s affair is not the film’s most problematic passion. In her waking and dreaming moments—asleep in bed or onstage during an all-nuns-on-deck Bible pageant—Benedetta, who has since childhood claimed some contact with a higher power, experiences mystic visions of a Jesus who, whether gesturing in a field of sheep or wielding a sword against some slithering serpents—signs and wonders registered via slightly ropey CGI—regards her with what can only be called bedroom eyes. Behold, in Flesh and Blood: the Last Temptation of Christ.

Verhoeven has always been sympathetic to both ego and delusions of grandeur—let he who is without chutzpah cast the first stone—and to some extent he is on familiar ground; his entertaining 2007 literary historical biography Jesus of Nazareth imagines its subject as a rabble-rousing, proto-socialist Che Guevara manque—a figure to join the director’s gallery of rebels and outcasts. Communal rituals and dormitory life figure into so many of Verhoeven’s films in the Netherlands and Hollywood—from Katie Tippel to Showgirls to Starship Troopers—that it was only a matter of time before he got himself to a nunnery. Benedetta’s aesthetic is very much fox-in-the-henhouse, and once its stone walls have been broached by Verhoeven’s camera, the abbey becomes a garden of earthly delights. No sooner has Bartolomea claimed the bed next to Benedetta’s in the hopes of being shown the ropes than her neighbor spies her gamboling topless behind a sheer partition that wouldn’t be out of place in a mid-’90s Madonna video (insert “Like a Virgin” joke here, or maybe “Like a Prayer”).

The sophisticated way to frame Verhoeven’s approach to nudity—historically co-ed in his films, but with a distinct emphasis on statuesque distaff physiques—is that he’s “relaxed,” or maybe even “painterly.” It’s probably truer to say that the director’s tumescent aesthetics represent the opposite of respectful, artistic distance. Not only does Basic Instinct contain one of the most memorably graphic frames in the history of non-hardcore American cinema, but the circumstances under which the image was captured—a moment of appalling on-set betrayal recently relitigated during the release of Sharon Stone’s autobiography—significantly complicate the ethics of Verhoeven’s inveterate horniness.

There’s a trace of Stone’s bristling ambivalence as Catherine Trammell in Efira’s performance here, and like Basic Instinct—and its Dutch-language spiritual progenitor The 4th ManBenedetta is about a blonde with a secret who may be capable of anything. When Benedetta starts showing signs of stigmata—evidence, she claims, that Jesus doesn’t just love her but seeks to speak and delegate through her—the camera catches stray shards of glass in the vicinity, suggesting the possibility of surreptitious self-harm and, at least theoretically, keeping things in an ambiguous space. (This is the same trick he pulled in Basic Instinct right up until the close-up of the ice pick, but there’s no such MacGuffin here, as proof is elusive in the realm of the ephemeral.) The plot, once it gets going, is driven by the efforts of the protagonist’s rivals to call her self-appointed divinity into question. Some of these rivals are women who resent their peer’s seemingly God-given shortcut to queen-bee status, which comes complete with a private room in which she’s free to do private things with Bartolomea—including refashioning a wooden icon of the Virgin Mary into a dildo (wait, there’s the MacGuffin), as succinct an illustration of Verhoeven’s sacred-and-profane metaphysics as one could ever want. Some are men, including Lambert Wilson’s repellent, petty tyrant Nuncio, who fear that the newly minted Jesus Christ Superstar in their midst will reconfigure the extant power dynamics that have, until now, suited their purposes and then some.

Because we’re granted access to Benedetta’s fantasy life, organized around those brief encounters with a sexy, androgynous Savior, we’re primed to see her as a true believer, if not necessarily the genuine article. In Verhoeven’s moral hierarchy, this places her above hypocrites of all denominations. If guilt and shame are the antithesis of Verhoeven’s art, he’s certainly not above judgment, especially when it comes to characters who cloak themselves in dogma in order to influence others.

When Benedetta premiered in September at the New York Film Festival, it was met with a few scattered protesters packing placards on behalf of good old-fashioned Christian decency. Verhoeven was picketed every which way during the release of Basic Instinct (including, not wrongly, by representatives of GLAAD incensed by the film’s glib equivalencies between lesbian tendencies and serial murder) and essentially crucified for Showgirls, so this feeble attempt at scandal-mongering must not have even registered. Speculation that the protesters had been hired by the film’s distributor to drum up interest, William Castle–style, couldn’t be dismissed easily, because while Benedetta is made in the same glossy, accessible, commercial mode that has characterized Verhoeven’s cinema for almost fifty years—since he basically invented a popular Dutch art cinema in Turkish Delight (1974)—the film has proven a bit of a hard sell. Reception at Cannes was muted compared to the ecstasies that greeted 2016’s Elle, a nearly perfect thriller starring Isabelle Huppert in flesh-rending barracuda mode as a video-game designer harboring vigilante fantasies in the wake of her own sexual assault. But while Elle’s secular fable serves Verhoeven’s gifts as a social satirist, Benedetta’s milieu obliges a true passion play. The director’s refusal to differentiate between the sacred and the profane is more thrilling in a context that actually acknowledges the former.

If Benedetta is more ambitious than Elle, it also feels more cut-rate. There’s something a bit chintzy about the film’s set and costume design, and its CGI is blocky and poorly integrated. In the ’90s Verhoeven’s dream project was a DeMille-style spectacular about the Crusades starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and while he never pulled it off, he came close with Showgirls, with its various casino-set dance spectaculars, including an Old Testament-themed bump n’ grind complete with fiberglass dunes and burbling volcanoes. Benedetta’s apparent and actual cheapness signifies in a few ways at once: as evidence of the diminished box-office potential and budgetary allowances for a certain kind of period piece; as a hint that Verhoeven’s post-Showgirls rebirth as an arthouse director comes with a tighter leash; as proof that this kind of full-regalia filmmaking is hard under any circumstances. What Verhoeven makes look easy is the kind of fluid, dramatically coherent storytelling often attributed by critics to old hands—that is, any studio hack whose career predates Netflix—but rarely actually achieved.

Verhoeven is not a virtuoso with the camera, and he doesn’t have any real compositional signature. What he’s got isn’t so much a style as a touch, a confidence that the right mix of casting, camera placement, and timing will convey important or even profound information entertainingly—or maybe transubstantiate entertainment into something profound. Within the first two minutes of Benedetta’s prologue—in which its namesake’s younger incarnation compels a bird to shit in the eye of a potential assailant—it’s clear that Verhoeven is in his comfort zone; if the movie doesn’t necessarily push beyond those confines, it confirms them as a uniquely spacious and fertile patch of cinematic terrain, where provocation and pleasure get intertwined on a molecular level and nearly every line cuts two ways, as a statement of principles and a sick joke.

“It’s futile and pointless, but at least I’ve devoted my entire life to it,” deadpans Rampling’s Abbess about her vocation during an unguarded conversation. Where another movie would score points off the high dudgeon of a glorified den mother, Benedetta respects her commitment and even turns her into a tragic figure—the victim of a literal and figurative contagion emanating from her male superiors. Verhoeven’s view of a world where the separation of sexes leads to unproductive stirrings of mystery and enmity is serious and genuine, and so is his skepticism of the convent’s rituals and rules. And yet it isn’t right to call him irreligious, exactly, or even irreverent—he is, as ever, an anti-institutionalist. As Bartolomea’s opponents become angrier and more fervent, we discover that Nuncio and his henchmen are more appalled by her confessions of same-sex intercourse than by the possibilities of hereticism or of possession. It’s in this trenchant, nasty examination of male control-freakery that Benedetta simultaneously dramatizes the inequities of its own era and collapses the gap between then and now (the same trick Ridley Scott pulled in The Last Duel); ditto the way that the action is contextualized by the lurking threat (and political contingencies) of the Black Death. It’s a coincidence of timing that Benedetta arrives as an allegory of global plague mentality, and a sign of Verhoeven’s own sadistic constancy that he exploits the backdrop to indulge in images of intense and indelible grossness—the flipside to his sensualism. Verhoeven is the patron saint of mortification, and when he crosses the streams—as happens a few times here—his work has the power to discombobulate our responses to a startling degree.

There’s surely a lucid, if not necessarily doctrinaire, feminist reading to be made of Benedetta and Bartolomea’s forbidden, and initially wary, passion and the way that dark forces mass themselves against it—and not just the feminism-by-default that Verhoeven has patented by focusing so many of his greatest movies on tough-minded, soul-and-body-baring female survivors surrounded by venal and disgusting men. Usually, when somebody is described as an “equal opportunity offender,” it’s a red flag that what they’re really into is upholding the status quo. But Verhoeven’s willingness to court misandry and misogyny hand in hand adds up to a form—however unconventional—of humanism, one that doesn’t so much stake out political incorrectness as a selling point as problematize the idea of purity itself. Benedetta is not meek, and in the end, it’s uncertain as to whether she’ll inherit the earth, but it’s clear that the first stone in the crusade she’s caught up in was cast long ago—and not by her side. The film’s ending, describing a parting of ways between two lovers whose shared experiences can’t overcome incompatible visions of reality, is emotional without being sentimental. For a filmmaker so preoccupied by—and adept at—the psychology of manipulation, Verhoeven is less interested in instructing how to think about his charged, knowingly outrageous material than in granting the space to do so; this hot-nuns-in-love saga is also authentically a movie of ideas.

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